REFLECTIONS ON TURNING FIFTY
A trip abroad just before my fiftieth birthday gave me the time to sit and reflect on God’s goodness to me, and I thought that I will write it down as a tribute to God and, hopefully, to edify some of my friends.
I THANK GOD
- Most of all I thank God for saving me. What would life be without Jesus, and how I look forward with eager anticipation to being with him forever in heaven!
- I thank God for introducing me to the Methodist heritage of singing, especially through my pastor in my teenage years, George Good. My hymn-books have been my wonderful companions in my worship, in my travels and my times of trial, loneliness and discouragement. While I thank God for giving me some musical ability, I will not forget that one of those who helped re-introduce the classic hymns to the evangelical movement, A. W. Tozer, could not sing in tune! So I will not restrict the advocacy of the use of hymns to those who can sing in tune. Alas only precious few of those are found among Buddhist converts.
- I thank God for calling me to the ministry of the Word. As a youth I thought I belonged to the category of “least likely to succeed.” Have I been a success? I will know that only when I get to heaven (at which time it will be my great joy to cast all my crowns at the feet of Jesus and be transfixed by his glory). But I know that I have been called to the ministry of the Word—significant ministry indeed. It is a thrill to exercise my call and to know that God has topped it up this fiftieth year by giving this old man the high privilege of teaching and leading a great bunch of teenagers.
- How blessed I am to be born to the family I belong to. My parents are so different to each other. Today we would say they are quite incompatible. But each in their unique ways contributed to what I am today. I thank God especially because my mother led me to Christ and has been the most important Bible teacher in my life. I thank God that my father gave us a model of hard work and of making most of the time. He also lies behind my love for books and was responsible for my getting the wonderful opportunity for studying abroad. The dedication page is my favourite page in my books. And my first and fifth (revision of first) books were dedicated to my parents “with gratitude for Christian nurture and encouragement in ministry”.
My parents did not favour one sibling over the other. Therefore today we can thank God for a harmonious relationship as siblings. And how much they have helped me over the years. My sixth book was dedicated to them and their spouses “with gratitude from a brother who has received so much and given so little in return”.
- It almost seems unfair that one who had such a privileged childhood should also be given such a fantastic wife. But I take that as a privilege that brings a responsibility to help others. After 22 years of marriage, I thank God that Nelun is still my best friend and closest confidant, that she remains so loveable and that she accepts me despite my many weaknesses. I am especially thankful that she has released me to travel, study and write—callings that are very hard on the spouse. This is not to say that we are “a perfectly matched couple”, if there be such a thing. We are so different that we often get on each other’s nerves. But that is not what I remember when I think of her! I think what is most important is that we are one in our deepest desire: we at least want to make pleasing God the most important desire in our lives. My third book was dedicated “to Nelun, God’s gift to me, with joy and gratitude.”
- My children are teenagers, and I thank God that still the sight of them makes my heart leap for joy—most of the time (smile!). It is a particular joy to lead the ministry in YFC that they are involved in. Nirmali’s love for ministry is a thrill to me, and Asiri’s ability with computers helps me in my desperate moments and his gentle spirit is a joy to me! My biggest and hopefully most long-lasting book, the Acts Commentary, was dedicated to Nelun, Nirmali and Asiri “Thanking God for his beautiful gift of family.”
- How grateful I am for the training for ministry that I received at home, in church and in seminary. It is not without reason that I dedicated my second book to George Good (minister), Sam Sherrard (YFC leader), Robert Coleman and Dan Fuller (seminary teachers). My seventh book was dedicated to nine favourite seminary teachers.
- The fourth book (on Friendship) was dedicated to my senior colleagues, Brian, Richard, Tony, Suri and Adrian and their wives. They represent a host of friends, relatives and colleagues in Sri Lanka and abroad who have compensated for my weaknesses, stimulated me mentally, ministered to me spiritually, borne my burdens, helped me out when in need and mediated several pleasurable experiences (including holidays).
I must especially acknowledge the help of our board chairman Bala, treasurer Jito and accountant Chandran who helped me so much in recent years as our ministry faced several crises. I thank God for the leadership team we now have and the other younger Christians I have had the privilege of mentoring. And what would I be if I did not have the benefit of the ministry of the secretaries and assistants I have had over the years. Each group I have been involved with—church, the Seminary, Navodaya, and Lausanne—have yielded lasting friendships. Indeed friendship is one of life’s greatest gifts.
- I was so fortunate to be encouraged by some esteemed international Christian leaders who took the time to write to and encourage me and speak or write on behalf of me when I was young. I think especially of Paul Rees, Carl Henry, Arthur Glasser, Robert Coleman, Sam Wolgemuth, Victor Manogarom, Leighton Ford, John Stott, J. I. Packer and John Kyle. Other friends abroad helped me with funds to purchase my books. And what a source of pleasure and enrichment my books have been! They are my greatest earthly treasure. Roger Headland introduced me to my first publisher in India. Brian Stiller introduced me to Tyndale House, my first Western publisher, Tim Stafford to Zondervan and Kent Hughes to Crossway. I must try, in my own small way, to help others along the way.
My “life passage,” 1 Tim. 1:11-17, puts it better than I could. Paul starts with the fact that he has been entrusted with a glorious gospel (vv. 11, 12). Even though he was a big sinner God’s grace “super-abounded” to him (13-14). This is because of the gospel about Christ’s coming to the world to save sinners (v. 15). But Paul, the chief of sinners, was shown mercy so that God would demonstrate his patience resulting in others realising that they are not beyond hope (v. 16). The natural reaction to all of this is doxology (v. 17—my favourite verse in the Bible): “To the king of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen”.
Another favourite verse is 2 Cor. 4:1: “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.”
Leadership is a hot topic of study today, and many sophisticated reasons are given for problems in leadership, many of which are helpful. But I believe that the root of most of the problems is the failure to follow the basics of the Christian life. Always our biggest battle is to maintain what my friend Alfons Hilderbrandt calls “our Sunday school faith.” This does not depend on others. Rather it depends on our availing ourselves of God’s sufficient grace for every situation. Did not Moody say, “I have had more trouble with D. L. Moody than with any other person I have met”?
Often when people ask me, “What lies ahead of you in the future?” I am only able to answer with the somewhat uninspiring, “More of the same.” Here are some of the principles that have helped in the past, which I will seek to follow and give priority to in the future also.
- Spending time with God is the most important work I do each day. Though I often fall short here, I will try to spend 75 to 90 minutes each day with God, giving 30 minutes for Bible study and 60 for prayer. In doing so I will perform my most important function as a leader: intercession. One aim during this time is to jealously guard the joy of the Lord, which is what gives me strength to face the rigours of ministry. I also believe that, given my hectic schedule, this will be my biggest antidote to burnout.
- I must aim to be unrelenting in my battle against sin and impurity and the weights that cling to me so closely (the weakest area in my life).
- I will work hard at being a good husband to my wife, son to my parents, father to my children and leader to those I lead in YFC. Much repair work is needed here. A key need is to discipline myself to avoid over-scheduling.
- I must stay clear of telling slanderous things about others, gossip and false accusation—a besetting sin of us Evangelicals in Sri Lanka.
- My method has been to focus on people’s strengths in the hope that these strengths will give them courage to work on their weaknesses. I have also tried to help people fulfil their visions within YFC whenever possible. This has come under a lot of fire over the years. Has YFC suffered because I have been taken for a ride so often? I still believe that this is the style that best suits my personality. But I freely acknowledge that it must be balanced off by the wisdom of others in the body.
- I must not take on assignments that may elevate me in the ecclesiastical ladder, but which are not in keeping with my primary callings. This continues to be so difficult to decide on. Pascal said, “That the vanity of the world is so obvious and yet so little recognised by people is surely an amazing thing. Yet they find it so odd to be told that it is foolish to seek greatness. Surely that is most remarkable” (Pensées, 16, 161). I face this as a writer and theologian (of sorts). In terms of the promotion of my books and ideas, it looks like I am living in a wilderness and lack a “platform”. I must be content with the prominence that God is happy to give my writings, knowing that what is most important is the smile of his approval and not the sales figures (which, for me, have been pathetically low). Yet I will work extra hard at being the best preacher, teacher and writer that I could possibly be under God.
- I must seek the agreement of Nelun and my colleagues on important decisions, however, humiliating, disappointing, cumbersome and time-consuming that may be.
- I must never break the principles of love, integrity and honour which we have tried to make a hallmark of YFC.
- I must show kindness to those who cause me/us pain, even though they may not appreciate the kindness and keep blaming me/us for their problems.
- I must never retaliate when angry, hurt or humiliated, and always check with others about my reactions in such situations.
- I must always try to keep my word. “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary…? He… who keeps his oath even when it hurts” (Psa. 15.1, 4). This is no easy task for one who says “yes” too quickly, too often. One weakness leads to another—tiredness as a result of doing things I should have said “no” to. Of course, the tiredness as a result of serving the needs of those I lead must be embraced with joy.
- I must give to those who ask, in keeping to Jesus’ command (Matt. 5:42). This would include missionary giving, meeting our obligations to others however hard (mandatory giving first, and then spending), giving back a rented house to a landlord who asks for it (may YFC never stay a day more than we should in the homes we have rented). The excitement of this method is seeing God provide what we need (including antacid for the stomach) at our times of extremity.
- It would be better to lose everything earthly in a conflict than to be unfair by our opponent or hit below the belt. God will honour us in his time.
- When it comes to money, better be safe than sorry. That is, if you are not sure, better lose the money rather than gain or keep the money in the wrong way.
These money-related issues have been quite complex as in YFC we use money given by donors. We must honour their intentions. This means more hard work in raising monies for things that do not come within our donors’ intentions.
I cannot write such a personal testimony without including a hymn.
This, this is the God we adore,
Our faithful unchangeable friend,
Whose love is as great as his power,
And neither knows measure nor end:
‘Tis Jesus the first and the last,
Whose spirit shall guide us safe home;
We’ll praise him for all that is past,
And trust him for all that’s to come.
Joseph Hart (1712-68)